How do you make a story funny when you're not a natural comedian? Here are 8 exercises to improve your comedy writing. Get ready to make yourself and your audience laugh.
Writing comedy is trickier than opening a bag of cheetos in a hurricane. There are many theories about what makes something funny, and many great techniques for injecting comedy into the stories and anecdotes that you include in your presentations or speeches.
But, how do you "pull out the funny" from a story?
The other day I was MC'ing at a speaking event. I knew that one of the speakers wanted to inject some humour into her speech by including a couple of funny stories. As the MC, I had warmed up the audience a little and they had given me generous laughs for what were, admittedly, very silly jokes.
However, by the time the speaker was halfway through her speech, she still wasn't getting any laughs from the audience. It wasn't that they were unresponsive. I could tell that the audience was really looking for places to laugh. Once or twice there was a generous chuckle from an audience member, but it was difficult to find places to laugh at all.
I wondered: Why are these stories not making us laugh?
The two stories she had picked were great candidates for humour. They described situations which were unusual and potentially vivid.
I could see two potential causes of the lack of laughs:
- The stories weren't written with clearly "funny bits", which is why we were struggling to find places to laugh. The situation she described was entertaining but not yet funny.
- In order to get laughs from the stories (as they were written) the speaker would have had to "act it out" in an exaggerated way. I could see she was uncomfortable fully throwing herself into the acting, as people often are (myself included).
She could have benefited from using some quick comedy writing techniques when she wrote the stories.
How to Write Funny
Some people say "If you're not naturally funny, you'll never be funny." I think this is ridiculous. It's like saying that only child prodigies can become musicians — Nobody is born holding a tuba! (at least I hope not… for the mother's sake).
Everyone in the world has a sense of humour … apart from <insert name of "serious celebrity of the moment", e.g. Donald Trump, Tom Cruise, Margaret Thatcher… you get the idea.>.
If you enjoy watching or reading comedy, I believe you have the ability to write something humorous. The trick is to write something that makes yourself laugh.
How do you write something that makes you laugh?
Well… most comedy is based on surprise. So, you have to write something that surprises yourself. In order to do this you need to:
- Stop thinking.
- Start writing, a lot, without thinking about it.
- Most of the things you write will not be funny. Occasionally, something you write will surprise you into a chuckle.
- Keep writing longer than you think is necessary.
Writing comedy takes diligence, discipline, and downright delusion.
It takes time to write a funny story. However, most of us are not trying to come up with enough jokes for a 1 hour stand-up comedy routine (around 100 to 400 jokes). We just want to add a little touch of humour into a story. Once you've had a bit of practice, you should be able to do this quite quickly.
There are some great books on humour writing. I highly recommend Sally Holloway's Serious Guide to Joke Writing, Gene Perret's Comedy Writing Self-Taught Workbook, and Comedy Writing Secrets from Mel Helitzer and Mark Shatz.
All of these books include exercises which hit those four steps I mentioned: stop thinking, write a lot, giggle occasionally, keep writing.
However, all those books are a "long game" investment. Each one is an entire comedy writing course in itself. They dig deep into the nuts and bolts of writing comedy and they can take weeks or months complete (Gene Perret's workbook alone includes 100 exercises).
In the rest of this post, I will introduce a few easy exercises for improving the humour of your stories and anecdotes.
8 Exercises to Inject Humour into Your Story
Here are some quick exercises to boost the humour in your stories for presentations, speeches or anecdote battles with your grandmother (like a rap battle but with stories).
Please complete the exercises in order as they build on each other.
DISCLAIMER: These are not a surefire way to write comedy in any situation. They are a starting point. They are a way to inject a little bit of colour into an otherwise serious story. Please don't come running to me if you use them to write material for a late night stand-up show and they don't get many laughs (actually, please don't come running to me at all, I'm quite a nervous person).
Got a Story or Anecdote?
Here's the first rough draft of a story.
Last week I was standing next to a woman who was explaining that she was a public speaker who teaches companies to implement better health and safety rules. I'm terrible at conversations. I was standing there saying nothing. I was uninspired, tired and over-caffeinated. I panicked. I said something like "Oh, I think there's too much health and safety in this country."I suddenly realised what I'd said. Inside I went "Nooooo." I tried to backtrack. I said: "I mean. That's not really what I mean. What I really mean is that people don't pay attention to health and safety, you know, they still do stupid things even though the rules are there." But it was too late. She already thought I was a twit.
It's kind of funny… or rather, it has the potential to be funny. It's a funny situation. It was embarrassing at the time, which is often a good sign that a story has comedy potential.
Exercise 1: Find Your Own Story
Pick a story which you want to tell in your speech or presentation. It doesn't have be inherently hilarious (mine isn't) but it should be a story you find kind of funny or ridiculous for some reason.
Exercise 2: Why Is This Story Funny?
- What is funny about your story?
If you've chosen the story yourself, it's likely that you find it funny for some reason. Try to come up with a few specific aspects.
Taking my story as an example, here are four things that I think make it funny:
- It's a perfect example of how inept I am at conversations.
- Saying "I think there's too much health and safety" is clearly an inappropriate thing to say to a health and safety advocate.
- I immediately knew that it was the wrong thing to say (shouting "Nooooo" in my head is quite funny, I think)
- My attempt to backtrack was awkward and clearly doomed to failure.
You may disagree that these things make my story funny. Perhaps you think my story is boring. If so, I don't care. You shouldn't care either.
Knowing why your story is funny (for you) is important because you it allows you to highlight those points of humour.
Exercise 3: Stop Thinking and Start Creating
For now, put your story aside.
It's time to have some fun.
As I said above, comedy writing requires you to stop thinking and start producing. Only then can you start to produce truly creative ideas.
This exercise, which is from Comedy Writing Secrets, helps to get you into that mindset.
- Get a blank sheet of paper and pen.
- Set a countdown timer for five minutes.
- Write down as many possible uses for "two bar stool cushions" as you can.
- DO NOT stop to think. When you think of an idea, no matter how boring, illogical or weird it is, write it down and move onto the next one.
- When the timer sounds. Stop.
How many did you get?
If you think you are still "censoring yourself", try the exercise again with a different object. This online object generator is a good way to generate new suggestions.
I just did the exercise using the object of a "puddle" and I managed to come up with 26 uses in 5 minutes (see here for my list). There were two occasions where I thought "this is really difficult": at around use number 6 and use number 19. Stick with it, keep coming up with ideas. Most of them won't be funny. That's okay.
Exercise 4: Chop Down Your Story
Back to your story.
This exercise comes from GOLD Comedy. The purpose of the exercise is to hone in on the funny bits of your story and throw out all the unnecessary stuff.
Go back to your story and chop it down.
First try to reduce it to 100 words.
Here's my story again, in 99 words:
I'm terrible at conversations. The other day I was at a networking event. This woman came over and told me she was a health and safety advocate. I couldn't think what to say. I panicked. I said "I think there's too much health and safety." A voice in my head starts shouting "Nooo! Don't say that! Anything but that." I tried to backtrack. "No that's not what I mean. What I mean is that health and safety is a wonderful thing but people are idiots. No that's not what I mean either." But it was too late, she'd gone.
Notice, I've had to "get a bit creative" with it in places. I've condensed what I actually said. For example, I didn't actually say "people are idiots" but it's the fundamentally the same as what I said and it's a funnier line (if I perform it properly).
Sometimes you have to get a bit inventive with your story to make it funnier. It's still the same story but I've concentrated it to highlight the funnier parts.
Now try to chop it down to just 50 words.
Here's mine in 50 words:
I'm terrible at networking. Last week I went up to this health and safety advocate. I panicked. I said "Hi. I think there's too much health and safety. Nooo!! that's not what I mean. I mean health and safety is wonderful but people are idiots. No not that either!" Too late, she'd gone.
Although it's short, it's still a story. It's not a "joke".
This doesn't mean that you will use this short version of the story in your speech. I prefer the 99 word version of mine, but cutting it down to 50 helped me to hone in on the funniest parts of it.
Exercise 5: The Power of a Description
Now that we have taken non-funny stuff out of the story, it's time to put some new funny stuff back in.
Colourful, specific description goes a long way towards making something funnier. Your audience will find it easier to laugh when you paint the scene more vividly.
Go through your story and insert extra description. Make it as colourful as you can and feel free to add funny comments if you think of any (it's fine if you don't).
Here's mine, using my 99 word version as a base (with the things I've added in bold):
I'm terrible at conversations. The other day I was at a networking event. People had converged into groups and were chatting amongst each other — as if it was easy! This woman came over and told me she was a health and safety advocate. My mind went blank. I couldn't think what to say. I panicked. I said "I think there's too much health and safety." A little voice in my head starts shouting "Nooo! Don't say that! Anything but that." Her face dropped. I tried to backtrack. "No that's not what I mean. What I mean is that health and safety is a wonderful thing but people are idiots. No that's not what I mean either." But it was too late, she'd gone.
Again, there's a certain amount of "artistic license" going on here. I have not made anything up, but it can sometimes feel like you are when you go through the process.
The Power of a Silly Description
Now you have got your descriptions, you might like to make one or two of them into "comedy descriptions".
One of my favourite ways of doing this is by using incongruous, exaggerated comparisons. This is fun to do and it's only as difficult as Exercise 3 that you did earlier (i.e. come up with uses for two bar stools).
To demonstrate what I mean, here are ten examples from the master of descriptions P.G. Wodehouse, who wrote the Jeeves series of books. He had a knack for describing people and situations using ridiculous comparisons:
- "His face had taken on the colour and expression of a devout tomato."
- "Before my eyes he wilted like a wet sock."
- "She had a beaky nose, tight thin lips, and her eye could have been used for splitting logs in the teak forests of Borneo."
- "The Duke’s moustache was rising and falling like seaweed on an ebb-tide."
- "He vanished abruptly, like an eel going into mud."
- "It was one of those parties where you cough twice before you speak and then decide not to say it after all."
- "A melancholy-looking man, he had the appearance of one who has searched for the leak in life's gas-pipe with a lighted candle."
- "Many an experienced undertaker would have been deceived by his appearance and started embalming on sight."
- "She had more curves than a scenic railway."
- "[He looked] as if Nature had intended to make a gorilla, and had changed its mind at the last moment."
Now, there are many reasons why these are funny (e.g. pacing, word choice, word order, etc). However, the fundamental similarity between these descriptions is they are all based around the same technique: they compare whatever is being described (usually someone's appearance) with something silly, vivid and unusual. Often, they do this with simile or metaphor.
Just to suck all of the fun out of these descriptions, here's how they could have been written:
- His face was red.
- He wilted.
- She had a pointed nose, thin lips and piercing eyes.
- The Duke's moustache was moving.
- He vanished.
- It was an awkward party.
- He was a sad-looking man.
- He looked gaunt.
- She was shapely.
- He looked tough.
See what I mean?
These descriptions are not bad. They are certainly better than no description at all (e.g. "it was an awkward party" is miles better than "it was a party"). However, they are not comedy descriptions.
Exercise 6: Stop Thinking Again
In the Exercise 7 you're going to update your story with some comedy descriptions. However, the last few exercises have been quite "brain heavy" so first let's do another fun exercise to switch off the analytic mind.
This is exercise is similar to Exercise 3, but a bit more directed towards description. It involves taking an emotion and coming up with many different ideas for who (or what) might experience that emotion.
For example, taking the emotion "bored" I came up with:
As bored as …
- a dog in a parked car
- a child in an art gallery
- Donald Trump in a meeting
- a policeman on a stakeout
- the Queen's elocution teacher
Remember, you're not trying to be funny. Just write down as many as you can think of.
- Get a blank sheet of paper and a pen.
- At the top write "As furious as …"
- Start a timer for 5 minutes.
- Write down as many endings to the sentence.
- When 5 minutes is up, stop.
Now go back through your answers and make them more specific and descriptive. Ask yourself "Why are they bored"?
So, for my examples I might say:
As bored as …
- a dog in a parked car when their owner is sitting in the front seat singing along to Celine Dion
- a child in an art gallery, without their iPad
- Donald Trump in a meeting of the World Health Organisation
- a policeman on a stakeout outside someone really boring's house… like, Ricky Gervais or Bono
- the Queen's elocution teacher after watching The King's Speech and realising their job could have been more interesting
When you've done that, feel free to do the exercise again if you want some more practice or simply found it fun. Go to this website for a random emotion generator.
Exercise 7: Sillify Your Descriptions
Back to your story!
I'd like you to fill your story with comedy descriptions, a bit like P.G. Wodehouse's but in your own style.
Look at the descriptions you added to the story earlier and try to make all of them funnier, if you can. Really go over the top. Also, if you notice any spots where you could add more colourful description, do so!
So, for my story I could do this (with the things I've added in bold):
I'm as bad at conversations as a blind mime in a room full of statues. The other day I was at a networking event. People had converged into groups and were buzzing away to each other like a hive of bees at their annual work party, as I sulked around the edges of the room trying to look comfortable. A sharp woman with starched blond hair came over to me and introduced herself as a health and safety advocate. I couldn't think what to say. My mind decided to take the day off and left me alone with an empty head. I panicked. I said "I think there's too much health and safety." A little voice in my head starts shouting. "Nooo! Don't say that! Anything but that." In an instant, her amicable face dropped so far I was afraid it would land in her wine glass. I tried to backtrack. "No that's not what I mean!" I exclaimed "What I mean is that health and safety is a wonderful thing but people are idiots. No that's not what I mean either." But it was too late, she'd gone, leaving me and my thoughts alone to battle it out together.
Now, obviously this is ridiculous. You don't want to include so much colourful description in your final version. However, now you have a lot to work with! You can pick the best bits and take out the ones which are not so good.
Exercise 8: Chop it Down
Finally, it's time to snip your story down again. This involves a little bit of tinkering. Try to keep the descriptions that add colour to the story and remove any of Don't let the descriptions over-crowd the core funny story that you identified back in Exercise 4.
Play around with it make sure to rehearse it out loud so that you know you can perform it well.
Here's how my story looks after a bit of chopping. I know that I could still improve this more, but it is okay as an example:
I'm terrible at conversations. The other day I was at a networking event. Everyone else had converged into groups, buzzing away like a hive of bees, as I sulked around the edges of the room pretending to look comfortable. A woman with starched blond hair came over to me and introduced herself as a health and safety advocate. I couldn't think what to say. My mind decided to take the rest of the day off. I panicked. I said "You know, I think there's too much health and safety." A little voice in my head starts shouting. "Nooo! Don't say that! Anything but that." Her smile dropped so far I was afraid it would land in her wine glass. I tried to backtrack. "No that's not what I meant! What I mean is that health and safety is a wonderful thing but people are idiots. No that's not what I mean either." But it was too late, she'd gone. I'm terrible at conversations.
Many of the edits in this version came after speaking the story aloud. I want it to sound natural, not literary. For example, the phrase "In an instant, her amicable face dropped so far…" just doesn't sound natural when I say it but "Her smile dropped so far…" does. Plus, I don't need to say "In an instant" because I can just pause as I'm speaking, which has a similar effect.
What You've Learned
That's it! Congratulations!
If you've gone through all eight of the exercises, you should have a story which is a bit funnier than it was at the beginning.
Now, you should rehearse it aloud until you are confident, comfortable and fluent, being as expressive as you can in the delievery. Use your body and act things out as much as you are comfortable doing.
In this article, you have learned:
- Two exercises to "switch off your thinking" to come up with funny ideas (Exercises 3 and 6)
- How to identify the core funny aspects of the story and condense the story into just the funny bits (Exercises 2, 4 and 8)
- How to add colourful descriptions to your condensed story and turn them into "comedy descriptions" (Exercises 5 and 7)
Please feel free to post your stories in the comments below.
Let me know if you have found this useful and what other aspects of writing, speech craft or performance you would like me to cover next.